How we can make up for nine years of lost time?
Having worked on the climate issue from 1986, back when it was a future threat, to present times, where it is the stuff of daily headlines, I have to admit that it would be easy to feel discouraged. We have squandered decades that would have allowed humanity to avoid the climate crisis altogether.
Still, I am more optimistic now than I have been in the last nine years. Nine years ago—2006—was also a year that changed everything.
It was the 2006 election which allowed Stephen Harper to form a minority government—even though cooperation between the Liberals and the NDP would have prevented this. (Conservatives had only 124 seats, the Liberals had 103 and the NDP had 29. Imagine what our country would have been spared had the opposition parties been willing to work together.)
My non-partisan approach to politics at Sierra Club had made me fully aware of how firmly Harper opposed climate action. It was recognizing the horrors of partisanship that led me to leave my position of 17 years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada and run for leader of the Green Party. I knew, especially given the climate threat, that we needed to find a new kind of politics.
I had tried to brief Stephen Harper for years. In the spring of 2005, I had a very revealing conversation with a Conservative MP who was actually in favour of climate action and believed his ideas would be in his party’s platform. I urged him to get Harper to make the commitment to Kyoto. Despite being sympathetic himself, he said, “We will never do that. Stephen will always see Kyoto as one of those UN things.”
And so it was that even with only a minority, with no vote in the House, within the first few weeks of becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper cancelled our commitment to Kyoto and the climate plan put in place less than a year before. That Canada had no meaningful plan to meet Kyoto from when we signed on in 1997 until 2005 was appalling. But the plan put forward in spring of 2005 would, according to the Pembina Institute, have led to Canada getting fairly close to our Kyoto target.
With no analysis and no debate, however, the whole climate plan was shut down and billions of dollars in funding cancelled. Harper dispatched his first environment minister, Rona Ambrose, to a global climate negotiation which she, ironically, chaired in spring 2006. The mantle of President of the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was one occupied ex officio by Canada’s Minister of Environment. We had hosted the negotiations in Montreal, scant months before and held the presidency until the next Conference of the Parties could be held. Rona Ambrose inherited the mantle from Stéphane Dion. Other nations could barely believe that Canada was prepared to flout our legally binding Kyoto target (6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012) and replace it with 20 percent below 2006 levels by 2020 (which it’s now clear we won’t meet).
As Harper took a machete to our climate goals, gradually we seem to have forgotten we ever had them at all. It is as though we have a collective amnesia.
Did we ever have a plan? People, even MPs, seem to have completely forgotten. Harper has even cancelled his own weak targets to replace them with weaker ones as he did in Copenhagen in 2009. The House of Commons passed Bruce Hyer’s private members’ climate bill, Bill C-311, in 2010—only to have the unelected Senate kill it prior to a single day of committee meetings. (My friend and fellow Green Bruce Hyer, MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, was an NDP MP when he managed to twist enough arms to get the bill passed.) The Senate had never abused its nominal power to kill a bill passed by the elected House in its entire history. But amnesia settled in.
Harper decreed that climate scientists were not allowed to speak with the media—so reporting on climate dropped by 70 percent. He violated a practice of all previous governments in disallowing opposition MPs inclusion on Canadian delegations to international meetings—especially on climate. And so opposition parties stopped sending MPs to the Conferences of the Parties. The manipulation to a deliberate forgetting was skilful and far more effective than I would have ever imagined.
It has become familiar framing to say that Canada lacks federal leadership—or that Stephen Harper has not been active on climate change. If only it were so. In fact, Stephen Harper has been hyper-active—boosting GHG emissions from a constant growth and expansion policy for the oil sands, while destroying any science to study or programmes to reduce GHG emissions at home.
In Lima at COP20, Canada agreed that all countries should table their planned emission and adaptation targets with the UN by March 31, 2015. The goal of achieving a binding comprehensive treaty by early December 2015 requires substantial advance analysis. Incredibly, not only did Canada miss the deadline, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has tried to blame the provinces for federal failure. She claims the data on GHG emissions from provincial governments is needed before Canada can develop its targets. The national media never asked the obvious question: How did the European Union coordinate 28 individual nation states into a shared submission by the deadline, while Canada could not handle talking to 10 provinces and 3 territories?
The so-called “sector by sector” approach isn’t a climate plan; it’s spin. Harper claims credit for a GHG emission downturn that was entirely related to the 2008 financial crisis, and which ever since has shown a steady rise. Stephen Harper signed on to the Copenhagen weak target without any intention of meeting it.
From my vantage point, as a longstanding participant in the annual UN Conferences of the Parties, Harper’s actions amount to sabotage.
So why am I optimistic?
The rest of the world is moving. The USA and China have announced targets. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) are all calling for carbon pricing and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The IEA is calling for two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground until at least 2050.
Last year was the first one in which GHG levels did not rise globally, in the absence of a major financial disaster; 2014 was also the first year in which global investments in renewable energy outpaced investments in fossil fuels. These are bets made by people who want to make money. They are not a manifestation of global altruism. In some parts of the world, the lifetime cost of a new solar facility is actually cheaper than the lifetime cost of new coal.
And my single largest source of optimism for success in Paris is the knowledge that Stephen Harper will not be Canada’s prime minister by October 20. We will have scant time—five weeks—to pull the new parliament together to re-orient Canada. I am encouraged that we will have many more Green MPs, working across party lines to make up for lost time—nine years of lost time. Canada’s delegation will once again include opposition parties and civil society organizations, and give a prominent role to First Nations and youth. We need to be the country at COP21 that twists arms and pushes others to deeper and stronger commitment. All this we can do. 2015 is the year that changes everything.
Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich Gulf-Islands and the leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Originally published in Focus Online.